All that is solid …

Patrick Pound, Cancelled archive (2017

Image credit: Patrick Pound, Cancelled archive (2017), found photographs (from FSA negatives held in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), dimensions variable, installation view. Photography: Christian Capurro.

Catalogue Essay

The worlds created by the artists in this exhibition and the situations that have inspired them are characterised by forms of transition, change and fluidity. Didem Erk, Cao Fei, Tom Nicholson, Patrick Pound and Cyrus Tang each work with ‘non-solid’ processes such as dissolution, tearing, cutting, melting, ruination, chewing, piercing and cancelling. The title of this exhibition is borrowed from the phrase ‘all that is solid melts into air’ which was originally published in the Communist Manifesto (1848) penned by Karl Marx with assistance from Friedrich Engels. Later popularised in 1982 through the success of Marshall Berman’s book of the same title, the phrase refers to the transformational conditions of modernity, where old methods, structures and social systems are dissolved and replaced by new ones. For this exhibition, I have borrowed the first part of the phrase, followed by an ellipsis, or three dots.{1] By suspending the phrase in this way, I aim to open up the proposition not only of how ‘all that is solid’ dissolves, but also the very nature of solidity itself.

The phrase, ‘all that is solid melts into air’ is widely considered to represent a modernist impulse where each action causes a contrary reaction. The desire to tear down what has gone before and replace it with something new was part of a revolutionary compulsion common to the historical avant-garde. The artists in this exhibition take an alternative approach. They work far more transversally across epochs, cultures and artistic disciplines. Rather than eschewing the past, they connect with it, often retaining the source materials in their artworks. For many of the artists exhibited here, the archive is an important generator of ideas. They find within it visual elements that flow and rhyme across time.

In addition, these artists introduce us to events, situations, conditions and environments that have arisen in periods of great change, precarity and transformation. They become our guide, and so the artwork is not necessarily something solid, but part of a fluid process of exploration, archival trace and montage. This is not the montage of the early 20th century artists such as Sergei Eisenstein, who sought a fusion of imagery that would result in the transition to a new world order. Montage in these works is understood in terms of the loose connections generated by the artist, between their lived experiences, the artwork, the situation created by the work and ultimately, the viewer.[2] Heterogeneous elements are combined, ‘co-belonging’ in the artworks, while memories are not dissolved and replaced so much as invoked and situated by the artists.

‘All that is solid melts into air’ appears in the first section of the Communist Manifesto. Describing the evolution of bourgeois capitalist society, Marx wrote:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face … the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men. [i]
He describes a society that was replacing Feudalism, one where everything was ascribed a value, to be bought or sold. It is a society, according to Marx, that is in continual renewal, where anything that is solid – including buildings, factories, employment, towns, cities and neighbourhoods – is dissolved and replaced. Out of the relentless economic crises, and the collisions between the bourgeois class and the proletariat, Marx hoped for an uprising and the creation of a Communist state. He expected that ‘capitalism [would] be melted by the heat of its own incandescent energies …’[4]

In his analysis of the Manifesto, Marshall Berman’s book, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, posits that, on the one hand, 20th century modernity was characterised by a sense of urgency, adventure, change and transformation and, on the other, by the turbulence of destruction and renewal:

… the glory of modern energy and dynamism, the ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them; the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed, recombined; a basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real …[5]

This text was written at the close of the 1970s in reaction to the rise of Marxist and modernist orthodoxies. The value of Marx’s phrase for Berman is the former’s understanding of the contradictions in modern society, the maelstrom of forces that throw people together and tear them apart, and the questions posed by Marx rather than his solutions. ‘To be modern’, according to Berman, ‘… is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom … To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom …’[6]

Today, the very notion of ‘making oneself somehow at home’ is not available to vast numbers of people as they attempt to move across the world in precarious circumstances. Moreover, ‘making oneself at home’ has a different meaning in terms of colonialist histories, especially here in Australia. Hence the maelstroms of contemporary life do not settle, the dust continues to circulate and imagery is perpetually transforming. There are three concepts that we can elucidate in relation to the artworks in this exhibition that give further insight into how the artists work with montage in response to this evolving set of conditions. First is the use of archival fragments; second are the gaps between diverse elements within the art works; and third is the notion that the artists create a situation of co-belonging. We will come to see that the processes of dissolving, breaking, perforating, cutting, tearing, chewing and burning evident in the artworks are creative gestures that suggest both violence and fragility.

Each of the artists in this year’s TarraWarra International bring into play archival images and objects in varying degrees. An ‘archive’ is a collection of material, assembled in some kind of order, with the purpose of registering and preserving a set of historical facts. The term ‘archive’ can be traced back to the Greek words arkheia meaning ‘public records’ and arkhē, meaning ‘government’. Archives can be official, or personal. They can be photographic, textual, visual or electronic. They are a system of knowledge. As the origin of the term ‘archive’ suggests, archiving is both ancient and continuous. It has been shown that it was in the colonial era that archiving expanded and became an instrument of imperial power. To archive was to colonise and vice versa. The archival turn in art (evident in contemporary art since the 1990s) is more than simply an interest in archives: it includes the critical analysis of how archives are assembled, their links with structures of political power and their creative potential.

Archives hold within them many items, and yet there are gaps. Comprised of numerous fragments, archives contain both knowledge and omissions in knowledge. There is also another kind of fissure: between the image, text or object and the associated event; between the archival piece and its original context. I would argue that there is a connection between the generative potential of archival collections, and the practices of collage, montage and assemblage that are often employed to create art works with archives. These early 20th century methods involve the idea of cutting and reassembling. Such temporal and spatial articulations are embedded in the very form of archives themselves: fragments are reassembled.

Okwui Enwezor suggests that artists who use archives in their works, become an ‘agent of memory … against the tendency of contemporary forms of amnesia … it is also within the archive that acts of remembering and regeneration occur, where a suture between past and present is performed, in the indeterminate zone between event and image, document and monument’.[7] It is not that the artist proposes a new kind of archival order; rather they work within this ‘indeterminate zone’. As we can see in this exhibition, the artists actively ‘cut’ and ‘tear’, ‘suture’ and ‘montage’ the materials and images. This is their mobilisation of the archive. They create small heterotopias in which the gap between words and things, objects and their interpretation, is prised open so that new meanings are formed. The archive is unravelled to reveal alternative networks of meaning that variously signal the interconnection between aesthetic and political gestures.

Moreover, in All that is solid … we see memories questioned and transformed into a new situation; the past is reflected upon without being replaced; historical images are revived without nostalgia; archives are montaged without the modernist impetus of revolutionary change or universal values. A useful way of understanding the contemporary montage in these artworks is through Jacques Rancière’s notion of ‘co-belonging’. For Rancière, our very way of communicating with one another, and our relationship to the everyday distribution of power is played out through montage. And it is through this mobilisation of fragments that resistance, activism, and new communities can arise. Symbolic montage, he writes, establishes a familiarity between heterogeneous elements:

… an occasional analogy, attesting to a more fundamental relationship of co-belonging, a shared world where heterogeneous elements are caught up in the same essential fabric, and are therefore always open to being assembled in accordance with the fraternity of a new metaphor.[8]
Heterogeneous elements are montaged together, not in the dialectic manner of modernism, where ‘all that is solid melts into air’; rather, the varied elements share a world, a ‘fabric’, and are open to being reassembled according to a new metaphor. It is a generative form of montage, one that can create new bonds and new associations across time, place and object. What follows is a more detailed analysis of each of the works that draws out many of these ideas.

Cyrus Tang’s suite of photographs Lacrimae Rerum (2016) begin with a city made of clay which is gradually dissolving in water. But Tang turns the city upside down, reversing the process so that it appears like a mirage. Each of these photographs is titled with a period of time exposure in seconds that the camera took to achieve this visual outcome, some of which were up to three and a half hours. The city in ruin transforms into intersecting planes of light, expressing a kind of shudder. Lacrimae Rerum is Latin for ‘tears for things’ suggesting that the work is exploring a loss of the city. The disintegration of the image is also evident in her 2016-17 video works The Final Cut Off – Daisy Kwok and The Final Cut Off – Alice Lim Kee where incense and ash are screen-printed onto a liquid surface outlining the portraits of two Australian-born Chinese women. In search of a better future, the two women relocated to Shanghai in the early 20th century, but eventually were caught up in the rise of Communism.[i] Like a memory that fades, the images distort and the ash and incense become a liquid abstraction.

Accompanying these works are Tang’s encyclopedia sculptures. The Children’s Encyclopedia (2016) and The Modern World Encyclopaedia (2017) have been cremated in a kiln. Through this process, Tang creates a delicate afterlife for the books and they are transformed into concave forms and cascading volumes. This action recognises the looming death of the encyclopedia, once the authoritative text at home or school and one that many of us collectively recall. Additionally, these works invoke book burnings during dictatorial regimes and the associated censorship of modern knowledge and progressive literature. Dust, ash and incense also have significance in Tang’s childhood memories of offerings at shrines in Hong Kong. All Our Yesterdays (2017) is comprised of porcelain painted on pages from The New International Illustrated Encyclopaedia. These archival sheets are both preserved and enclosed; what we see is a faint trace of the original page, but the text is absent.

Cao Fei’s video Rumba II: Nomad (2015) shows the debris of a building that is in the process of being destroyed to make way for another skyscraper in Beijing. In the video the dust is overwhelming and pervasive. The building used to be part of an urban fringe, where rural, artistic and industrial communities co-habited. We see a structure in the state of collapse, and Cao Fei inserts several characters into this concrete and brick ruin: robotic vacuum cleaners, fake plastic fowl, and a living community of people who occupy the space for different purposes including labourers, a child at play, another walking through the site, police, some men drinking, and a man dressed as a farmer, partly deranged, playing a saxophone in a discordant manner. The robotic cleaners are choreographed into a dance – a rumba – attempting some kind of structured existence in the midst of chaos, yet unable to manage the debris around them. The aliens here are the chickens. They are reminders of the past (as fowl and other animals once roamed here) but because they sit atop the cleaners, it is as if they have arrived from the future. An identity card (a small archival fragment) is visible in the ruins, yet in the environment Cao Fei presents there is a fluid, unstructured and unidentified community. While the memory of the past is still present, albeit in a state of collapse, Cao Fei creates a new situation for these homeless inhabitants. They are both apart and together, co-existing in a strange futuristic space.

Cancelled archive (2017) by Patrick Pound is a set of black and white photographs printed from the Farm Security Archive (FSA). Each image has a black hole in the middle, disrupting the image in an almost violent fashion. Punched into the negatives by the Director of the FSA, Roy Stryker, the holes marked the decision that the images were no longer useful for the archive. As such, a new kind of archive was created, a cancelled archive. The American struggle is still evident in these images: the poverty-stricken house, the solitary figure of a woman at the doorway, the dry fields. The black circles are, as Pound comments, ‘a harbinger of trouble’:

These images that have been cancelled offer an alternative archive of the indeterminacy of things; of peoples and of places. They speak of an archive subset – an archive of failure within a grand scheme, yet they have a quality all of their own to withstand their cancellation as negatives as they find a second life as printed evidence of their subjects and their master and the FSA photographers (known as ‘information officers’) in between.[10]

Pound arranges the photographs in a single line across a long wall so that the black discs float across as if in a sequence forming a passing black moon. As such, he binds the images into a new community, or fraternity. They come to share a fabric, even though they are diverse in their content. The cancelled archive is, as it were, re-imagined by Pound in his creation of an alternative structure.

‘I wish I could not be traced in the archives’ (Sırkıran I Secret Decipherer I Mistiko Spastis) 2013 and ‘I wish I could not be traced in the archives’ (Mekanım Datça Olsun | May Datça Be My Resting Place) 2017 are each two-channel video installations by Turkish artist Didem Erk. In the 2013 video we see the artist walking on both sides of the border between the Turkish and Greek sections of the Cypriot city of Nicosia. The artist is reading from a text by Gür Genç, aka Gürgenç Korkmazel, a poet, writer, translator and literary editor.[11] As Erk completes each page, she tears it from the book, chews it and then abandons it on the path. This action recalls the popular cinematic device of reading a secret message during war, and eating the evidence so that it cannot be traced. Yet the chewed pages do leave a trace, a line of evidence that follows the artist’s physical trajectory. The second video created especially for this exhibition, is located in Datça, the rural area where the artist lives. Datça is a small town that divides the Aegean and Mediterranean and a natural border where refugees cross over to Greece. Their perilous journeys have resulted in dead bodies being washed up on shore several times in recent years. One channel of the video is performed in Gereme facing the Aegean, the other channel is performed in Knidos, facing the Mediterranean. Erk reads from a book called Mekanım Datça Olsun (May Datça Be My Resting Place) by Can Yücel (1926 – 1999), one of the foremost Turkish poets and writers known for his use of colloquial language.[12]

Erk encounters multiple kinds of borders: natural, political and national. These actions of walking on a borderline, reading about place and chewing pages of a book, situate the landscape as an archive or library – as a place that holds stories within it. Erk has positioned the screens on the North/South axis of the Museum, and the viewer is located in between the screens, as if on a border. The soundtracks are intermingled and this level of disorientation means that the viewer experiences a kind of sonic instability.

Since 2015, Erk has worked on a series of installations with second-hand books that have been censored – such as by Can Yücel. She comments:

To cover something sometimes makes it visible, to underline or to cross-out a word makes it legible. How does the memory relate to performativity?  Pages are sewn word by word, sentence by sentence. The act obliterates the legibility but it connects the thread of writing and thread of sewing. The needle working through the page operates an invisible violence. However sewing is also a form of healing that asks the question, how is it possible to connect all the words (ideas) on the page, how to heal them?[13]
For this exhibition, she chose two books that were once censored in Australia: James Joyce’s Ulysses and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Like the black discs in Cancelled archive by Patrick Pound, or the cremated remains of encyclopedias in the works of Cyrus Tang, the piercing of needle and thread enacts a kind of violence on the page, while also representing a suturing, or healing, across the words, pages, and book.

Charcoal dust is Tom Nicholson’s medium in the installation Cartoons for Joseph Selleny (2012–17). Rather than consider oneself as a product of a continuous temporal identity, the archive provides a discontinuous representation of history. Because of the gaps in the archive, any sense of the self as whole or ‘transcendental’ is prised open. The archive teaches us that we are the product of different histories, discourses, masks and distinctions. The North Gallery of the Museum is covered in a drawing that has been created by Nicholson through the Renaissance method of pouncing with porous cloth. Charcoal is ground up to make dust and large pieces of paper have been perforated with small holes so that when the charcoal-filled cloth is pounced through the holes, an image is created on the wall without being directly drawn. This is a method used by Renaissance artists to transfer a drawing to a canvas. The abstract expanse holds within it the imagery of Nicholson’s original drawings that are based on four versions of The Execution of Maximilian painted by the French artist Edouard Manet between 1867 and 1869. Nicholson has produced preparatory drawings for these four versions of Manet’s painting after the fact. Also exhibited are take-away artist’s books of letters, written by Nicholson, to imaginary people caught up in the story of the Novara – the Austrian frigate that visited Sydney Harbour in 1858, sponsored by the Archduke Maximilian, the subject of Manet’s paintings. Joseph Selleny was the artist aboard the Novara – a colonial journey that resulted in the appropriation of Aboriginal objects that are now held in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna.

As we look out over the landscape of the Yarra Valley, where stories of Aboriginal dispossession are equally present, Nicholson’s installation comes to be about various acts of legibility: the written word, the drawings after Manet, and the abstract wall drawing. Violence is present in the images of the execution, in the act of perforating the drawings, and in the theft of the objects. The colonial explorations, borders and journeys continue to have a presence in museum archives around the world, where the results of colonial collecting remain in evidence. Nicholson’s installation crosses epochs, countries and artistic disciplines. The large dust drawing is spatial – a place for the imagination to wander. It feels like it contains light and air, but its energy is not the incandescent energy of modernity (‘all that is solid melts into air’) but instead a quiet and delicate pulse of the human hand that contains within it the trace of the complex narratives chosen by Nicholson. Dust does not settle – it is always with us, its particles invisible to the eye, circulating in the air and stirred by our mobility through space.

The artists in All that is solid … create worlds and situations based on lived experiences. They dissolve, fragment and prise apart significant histories, and reassemble situations anew. Their works question ‘all that is solid’, reframing memories, borders, journeys and archives in heterogeneous combinations. The viewer comes to know each situation through the action of the artist. They become our guide, and so the artwork is not fixed, but part of a fluid process of exploration, residue and co-belonging. There is an underlying violence embedded in the processes of cutting, tearing, piercing, melting, burning, ruining, and cancelling – perhaps reflecting the historical and contemporary violence that is enacted on landscapes and cityscapes today. But there are also moments of great fragility and, at times, humour, in these imaginative situations. At TarraWarra Museum of Art we continue to explore the connections between art, place and ideas, by turning around common expectations. The artworks in All that is solid… are our connection to precarious histories and resilient actions.

This essay appears in the catalogue for TarraWarra International 2017: All that is solid…, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2017.

Victoria Lynn

[1] The author acknowledges the previous use of this exhibition title by Cyrus Tang for her 2014 exhibition at Artereal Gallery, Sydney.

[2] For the purposes of this essay, I use the filmic term ‘montage’ to describe a broad set of practices that include collage and assemblage. Each term has specific histories.

[3] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ in Robert Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, (2nd edition), New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978, pp. 475-76. Cited by Berman, p. 21.

[4] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, (2nd edition), New York: Penguin, 1988, p. 97.

[5] ibid. p. 121.

[6] ibid. p. 345.

[7] Okwui Enwezor, ‘Archive Fever: Photography between History and the Monument’ in (ed. Okwui Enwezor), Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art. New York: International Center of Photography; Gèottingen, Germany: Steidl Publishers, 2008, pp. 46-47.

[8] Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, London: Verso, 2007, p. 57.
[9] The videos were originally created for an exhibition by John Young, Modernity’s End: Half the Sky, 2016, ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne.

[10] Patrick Pound, email to the author, 7 June 2017.

[11] Born in Paphos in 1969 he lived for four years in Turkey and seven years in Britain, resettling in Cyprus in 2003. Between 1992 and 2005 he published four books of poetry, and, in 2007, a collection of short stories.

[12] He studied classics at Ankara University and then at Cambridge University, before working as a translator at several Turkish embassies and then as a Turkish announcer at the BBC in London for 5 years. After moving to Istanbul in 1965, he also became a freelance translator. During his years in Istanbul, he pursued his political interests by continuing his support for the Labour party. It was during these years in Istanbul, following the Military Coup in 1971, that Yücel was first sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment because of two translations. He was released in 1974 because of a general amnesty.
[13] Didem Erk, email to the author, 8 March 2017.